Second in line launching the fall auction season in New York on Wednesday evening, Sotheby’s highly anticipated sale of works amassed by the late New York philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau, a former trustee at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, fetched a collective $406 million with fees. The grouping of 31 lots hammered at a collective $351 million, surpassing the $344 million low end of the estimate that Sotheby’s specialists had projected. The sale brought a packed house, with a bit of star power: comedian Seth Meyers was among the attendees.
That $406 million total figure represents one of the highest ever achieved for a single owner collection at auction. Stilll, that sum is modest still in comparison to the $676 million brought in from the court-ordered sale of the Macklowe collection, sold at Sotheby’s last fall, and the $646 million total drawn during the sale of David Rockefeller’s collection at Christie’s in 2018.
The Fisher Landau auction was what’s called a “white glove sale”, meaning that each and every one of its 31 lots offered were placed with buyers, though it’s worth keeping in mind that each of those lots were backed by third party guarantees — minimum bids secured by the auction house in deals with outside parties ahead of the sale which are meant to offset financial risk. There were some disappointments and some bright spots: nearly a third of the lots hammered at prices below their low estimates, but new records were set for Agnes Martin and Mark Tansey.
Agnes Martin’s Grey Stone II (1961). Courtesy Sotheby’s.
Anchoring the evening sale was a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso. Bidding for the canvas, depicting Picasso’s early muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, started at $100 million. A few bids brought the hammer price for the work to $121 million. The work eventually went to a bidder on the phone with Brooke Lampley, Head of Sotheby’s Global Fine Art division. Ahead of the sale, the painting was offered with an estimate upon request of $120 million. The end result, inclusive of fees, came to $139M, the second highest price ever achieved for Picasso at auction, below the $179 million paid for Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955) when it was sold at Christie’s in 2015.
After the Picasso hammered, the sale seemed to lose a bit of momentum. Multiple lots sold for upwards of $20 million, but didn’t far surpass the auction house’s expectations for them. Ed Ruscha’s Securing the Last Letter (Boss), a black-ground canvas featuring the word ‘BOSS’ in bold red lettering, brought the second highest auction price ever for the West Coast artist, going for a total of $39.4 million with fees. The painting hammered just below its $35 million estimate. Following a similar course was a 1958 canvas from Mark Rothko’s heralded series of works commissioned for New York City’s Seagram building. That work hammered on a bid of $19 million, well below its $30 million estimate. It sold to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Asia Chairman Wendy Lim, the final price coming out to $22 million with fees.
Elsewhere in the sale, historically important women artists were a focus. Agnes Martin’s large-scale canvas Grey Stone II (1961), an off-white monochrome painting that the postwar painter produced in the early period of her career, was the among the works that saw the deepest bidding of the night. When Barker opened the lot to the room, bids quickly soared and eventually the work hammered at a staggering $16 million, more than double its low estimate of $6 million. It went to a determined bidder in the room for a final price of $18.7 million with fees, surpassing Martin’s previous record of $17.7 million for her painting Untitled #44 at Sotheby’s Macklowe sale last November, and setting a new record for the artist.
Earlier on in the night, four bidders battled for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pink Tulip (Abstraction – #77 Tulip) , a floral abstraction that she produced in 1925 and that was featured in exhibitions at New York’s Intimate Gallery the following year when O’Keefe was rising as an artist. Landau bought the canvas directly from O’Keeffe in 1985, just a year before the artist’s death. The work went to a bidder in the room for a final price of $4.75 million, hammering over its low estimate of $3 million.
By contrast with Christie’s sale of 21st Century art on Tuesday night, living artists were few and far between in the Sotheby’s sale. One standout was Glenn Ligon, whose black-and-white textual work, Untitled (I Lost My Voice, I Found My Voice), hammered at $2.7 million, above the $2.5 million estimate, going for $3.2 million. Landau bought the piece in 1991 and later loaned it to the the artist’s 2011 mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
“Given the strength of the material I was expecting more,” said collector Max Dolciger, speaking to the sale as a whole. “But it was still a success. People were excited about how fresh the works were and of course about the provenance, but they were still cautious. It has nothing to do with the art. It has to do with where the world is right now and everything going on.”